Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Being Without Communion: Thoughts on Communion of the Unbaptized

Crusty Old Dean was at an international gathering, having dinner after the plenary discussion, when a Church of England bishop started talking loudly of something just dreadful he had heard about in the Episcopal Church. In usual English passive-aggressive style, he had probably wanted to grill me about this but chose instead to make it a topic of conversation with the person to his right instead of me, sitting one over from him on the left. He said he had heard that at a St Francis day pet blessing, at an Episcopal Church (no diocese or congregation mentioned), the priest had given communion to the pets after blessing them. How could any church consider themselves Christian who could do something like that? Then he turned smugly and looked at me.

"Gosh, bishop, I never heard that story," I said, "but I just have one question."

Tension rising at the table. Some people had been shooting glances as the English bishop told the story, obviously uncomfortable. Now a good 20 people or so were listening in on the conversation.

A broader smug smile. "Oh, really? What is that?"

"Did they baptize the pets first?"

Loud peals of laughter breaking the tension, the smug smiled turned to a glare and he looked away.

The question of communion of the unbaptized has returned, or perhaps we should say it has never left us. Perhaps it is a good sign the diocese of Eastern Oregon is bringing a resolution to the General Convention asking that the canons be changed to permit communion of unbaptized people: maybe it's a sign that we are ready to fight about other stuff than human sexuality, like going on your first date after a breakup can show you're ready to get back in the game. A previous resolution in 2003 died of "non-concurrence" (that is, the House of Bishops and House of Deputies didn't pass an identical resolution before Convention ended) and a 2006 resolution was referred to the House of Bishops Theology Commission.

At this risk of belaboring things -- many other bloggers have occupied mountains of server space on the topic -- COD will give his bullet points as to why he opposes it.

--We are already radically inclusive. We baptize anyone.
--When Jesus ate with outcasts, tax collectors, and practiced radical hospitality, that wasn't the eucharist.

Instead, COD would like to focus on a couple of other, perhaps oft less discussed, elements of this question. Instead of those talking points above, here is why COD is really opposed to communion of the unbaptized.

1. Anglicanism has a tendency to process things through liturgy. Here's a good example: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church spent most of the decade of the 2000s in a kind of extended debate about the role and place of openly gay and partnered persons as clergy and blessing same sex unions. How did the Episcopal Church handle this? Why, focused around sacramental and liturgical matters: ordination (confirming Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire) and liturgical rites for blessing those unions -- filtered through the meat grinder of polity. OK, how did the Lutherans handle it? By going through a years-long process of theological study coordinated through their churchwide offices, culminating in the release of a statement laying out the theological reasons, which was approved by their Assembly, along with constitutional changes based on that theological statement.

Episcopalians: process through liturgy. Lutherans: process through the theology. Same subject, same arguments (COD was ecumenical officer and had to sit through TWO denominations' worth of hearing the exact same arguments for and against for nearly a decade). An oversimplification to be sure, but one which speaks to some deeper ways in which Anglicanism frames how we have discussions.

Communion of the unbaptized, as we are dealing with it, feeds this tendency to process things through liturgy. All well and good, you might say, but it also means we can short-circuit the larger conversations we have to make. For example, the crisis in the Anglican Communion is more about ecclesiology than human sexuality, which is the presenting issue. Do we want to yoke the deeper issues around how we create community solely to how we give communion?

We have missed numerous opportunities in mission, evangelism, Christian formation, church planting, and so on. Not just in the past decade; for the past 200 years! 12% of Episcopal Church have been founded after 1968, after all; we are overwhelmingly Anglo in an increasingly multicultural country, to give another -- given massive shifts in demographics, we simply are not where the people are. Going to our liturgical place -- we'll bring people in by giving communion to all! -- will just result in half-formed Christians who have taken communion a couple of times unless we are serious about mission, evangelism, and formation.

2. The question of communion of the unbaptized has laid bare a climate of complete disregard for any sense of community or communion beyond our own. Some parishes feel completely free to make this decision on their own, despite the fact it is explicitly forbidden in the canons of the Episcopal Church. Some dioceses apparently feel free to do the same. This speaks to the deeper issue of people believing that so long as they are convinced something is right, then f**k everybody else. This lays us open to hypocrisy and insularity. Hypocrisy because people only choose to obey the canons they want and cry out against those who do not. "How dare Quincy and Forth Worth take these uncanonical actions! Us? But we're right." Or: "How are they ordain openly gay persons! I am justified in ignoring whatever I feel like because of a particular interpretation of a few biblical passages."

This kind of insularity reinforces the tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people and assume our particular adaptation of Anglicanism -- in our parish, in our diocese, in our province -- is somehow normative. The fact is we belong to a broad, large, diffuse, and diverse religious tradition. Is there anything that holds us together, or so long as you have a majority in any expression of the church -- a committee, a parish, a seminary, a diocese, a province -- should you be able to do whatever you want?

3. It is part and parcel of a tendency to lay all of our theological freight on the eucharist. Two quick examples of this in other areas.

One time, COD was planning a graduation ceremony for a diocesan local training program for ordination. This was to take place on a Sunday afternoon, and the planning committee starting planning for a eucharistic service. COD gently suggested, 'Since we will all have communed early that morning at the Sunday liturgy, and since this service is at 5pm, what about a celebration of Evening Prayer or Evensong?' One of the planning members said that wasn't really "church". COD specifically chose a service of Solemn Evensong for his installation last fall precisely for these reasons -- since, due to scheduling, the installation was held on a Thursday right around dusk, Evensong seemed appropriate. We can, at times, think the only way to "do" church is to celebrate the Eucharist. While that is central, we also have a rich tradition of many kinds of other services as well. Is the only way to welcome someone to worship to welcome them to the Eucharist?

We also, at times, seem to equate the ministry with our eucharistic functions, making the sole criterion for whether someone is called to the priesthood to be whether they feel called to celebrate the Eucharist. In my interviews for ordination, nobody asked me about how I preached, or my understanding of evangelism or mission -- it all focused around why I felt called to celebrate the Eucharist since that's what separated priests from deacons and lay persons. COD replied that he felt called to be a presbyter, not a priest, since the ancient term (and one used in the Book of Common Prayer) encompassed other elements of the office, including teaching, leadership, and pastoral care, in addition to presiding at the sacraments.

Communing the unbaptized seems to reinforce aspects of this paradigm: the only time we are "really" church is when we celebrate the Eucharist, so unless we can welcome people to that, we are somehow not welcoming. There are lots of ways to welcome people to lots of different kinds of worship. In fact, from some of the earliest Christian times one of the primary ways to experience Christ was to be baptized into Christ, as evidenced in Paul and some of the earliest Christian sources. In part we are dealing with the fact that we have shorn baptism from its radical nature and for 1500 years or so made it your membership card in Christendom. If we truly are committed to baptismal ecclesiology, we should continue to place it at the center of what we do.

4. The whole question is moot, anyway, and will just become another flashpoint as we organize ourselves into our little mini-communities, desperately trying to find the people who are like us, and, hence, the true Episcopalians. Whether the General Convention approves this resolution or not, the diocese of Eastern Oregon will continue to do whatever it feels like. And I don't mean to pick on them; this is another part of the problem. I quite like a lot of what the diocese of Eastern Oregon does, I have family there, have been there a number of times. Being opposed to communion of the unbaptized doesn't make me some kind of uptight liturgical law enforcement officer who wants to restrict the church to the frozen chosen. I disagree with it based on the reasons noted above. I don't think anyone who practices it is stupid, revisionist, or whatever terms people come up with. They're people who have come to a different conclusion than me. Just like not everyone opposed to Gene Robinson's consecration are vile, hate-filled homophobes (but some are, and COD has repeatedly called out the conservative movement for not disavowing the hatred within their own community, for instance in this post.).

We just need to be careful that the way we discuss this does not just reinforce tendencies which are destructive to the church.

When I was in seminary, we sat around late one night and moved past seminarian snark and sneer and, heaven forbid, actually started to talk about our faith instead of internalizing the vocabulary of faith we were picking up. One of the things we talked about were books that had fundamentally altered and changed how we thought. I happened to have just finished one when that conversation took place: Being as Communion, a collection of essays by John Zizioulas. Completed reoriented how I thought about myself and the church -- how individuals are incorporated into the body of Christ, which, in turn, is linked throughout time and space to other local communities.

Have to say Metropolitan John's title came to mind, along with my encounter with the smug English bishop. John and Paul (the apostle) have some wisdom to offer as we move forward in these discussions.

One is that while something may be lawful, does it build up? Yeah, theoretically, we could change the canons and permit this. But will it really build up the church? Without broader commitment to formation, mission, and ministry, I don't see how it would. If we give someone communion and then never talk to them at coffee hour and don't empower them in their baptismal ministry, we will have accomplished nothing.

One part of the body cannot say to the other, "I have no need of you." Paul says this in Corinthians, Metropolitan John laid out in his book the complex interweaving of person, local ecclesial community, broader ecclesial community. Just as we bristle against any increased centralization in the Anglican Communion, can we not see the other side of the coin, that utter and complete localism is just as heinous?


  1. I've gone back and forth on this and confess that I first became a church that encouraged communion before baptism (though I was in a formal catechumenate program). At this point, I agree with you full and have come to realize that hospitality isn't about removing markers of membership but giving meaning to them and inviting you in while agreeing to walk with you as you navigate through them. Jon

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  3. Thanks, Tammy. It just comes from a profound place of weariness. I'm sorry about that, and thanks for saying this. You are right. I will take it out.

  4. Prayers for your weariness Tom...sounds like a true Lenten time of life. Hope you experience a just as profound Eastertide...

  5. Nowadays we seem to decide what we intend to do and then just argue for it. It takes time, patience, cooperation and humility to consider the matter in question, consider objectively the theological, ecclesial, ecumenical and pastoral issues involved pro and con, enlist the help of scholars and pastors, ordained and lay, and then set forth our final proposals without hyperbole.

  6. I may have been brainwashed by the practice of an open table in my last four congregations, but more and more I am theologically and pastorally opposed to barriers to Communion. The Episcopal Church decided to become Eucharistically centered with the revision of the BCP. In my opinion to invite everyone to the table and then only feed the baptized goes against the model of Christ.

  7. I'd like to hear further what you mean when you said that Jesus' practice of inviting to the table were "not eucharist." I'm open to both sides of the argument, but I have to say that I'm particularly moved when I attend a church that uses as its invitation something along the line of "The table is not ours, it is the Lord's. All who seek to know Christ are welcome." I also am drawn to the idea that because the efficacy of the Sacrament is what it is (even for those who are cognitively unable to "understand," which honestly would be all of us), we can share it and encourage others to experience what God has to offer them.

  8. Just saying that the gospels draw a distinction between the last supper and other moments Jesus broke bread with others -- commands to do this in Jesus' memory, that it is a new covenant. Paul also draws distinctions between when Christians gather for fellowship and when they gather for the eucharist. I'm not saying Jesus didn't practice radical hospitality: he did. But that Paul and the early church saw that full inclusion came in baptism, which is putting on Christ, which is where there is no East or West.

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  10. Thank you, Tom. I tend to believe in erring on the side of hospitality regarding communion to the unbaptized, but that has always left me with a level of discomfort in so doing. And more and more I'm coming to believe that denying communion is not necessarily denying hospitality. The points you make have given me much to ponder. I do wish, however, that the BCP could find a gentler way to make its case, along the lines of the ELCA and UMC; more of an invitation to pursue life in the body of Christ, perhaps.

  11. Initially I was on the side of radical inclusiveness, as I shy away from any forms of exclusivity. I want everyone to be invited! Nobody should be left out! However, after reading this, I thought about this situation more... I asked some friends who are not baptized or members of a church if they ever felt excluded by not being able to take communion. They said no, they always felt welcome and understood that in order to take communion you have to make the commitment ('join the club' so to speak). In fact, some said they would actually feel uncomfortable taking communion without first being baptized. While Jesus did break bread with many different people, it is not those instances we re-live when we have Eucharist. We remember his final night with his disciples, the ones who had committed themselves to him and to the Way. Thank you, as always, for your insightful commentary.

  12. I wonder if the resolution of the tension between maintaining Eucharistic discipline and welcoming all to the table lies within the antidoron practice. There's a wonderful "blessing of the bread" prayer in the Sarum Missal that would allow the nonbaptized to participate in the movement of the congregation (coming forward, kneeling, etc), allow a sign of our own hospitality and maintain the discipline of the Baptized only receiving communion. I'm aware that some Orthodox don't allow non-Orthodox the antidoron, but that seems to be the minority report.

    Following on from your first point, one of the big difficulties I see with this is that it effectively absolves us from doing any real insight into the way we make A). New Christians and B). New Episcopalians. We (commonly) don't really have a real insight into the best practices for either A or B, so the anxiety about that gets discharged into "Radical Inclusivity" without actually doing the work in forming a community. We feel good about being "inclusive" without actually including anyone.

  13. Love the antidoron, I went to an Orthodox seminary for two years and lived in Russia, and my experience was people were almost literally falling over each other to give me the antidoron. They seemed clear about ecclesial boundaries without being mean.

  14. Apparently in the English Church (and elsewhere), it was customary for the churchwardens, at the end of the service, to offer bread to be blessed and distributed among those gathered; perhaps this is where the Sarum Prayer comes from. Here's something about it from this PDF pamphlet (see p. 12).

    "After the conclusion of the Solemn Parish Mass on Sundays, Blessed Bread (also called “Kirk-Loaf” or “Eulogia”), provided by the churchwardens, was blessed and distributed to the parishioners; this custom was not, however, unique to Sarum but was common in most countries of later medieval Europe."


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